The Great Cat Expedition
FELINE GOOD WITH LORD OF THE LAKES
By M. D. Entwistle
9 September 2021
Fifteen years ago, author and publisher, M. D. Entwistle relaunched a Wainwright illustrated title at an event quite unlike any other. In this guest blog he recollects his story of a hobby that turned into a literary odyssey.
A WAINWRIGHT CONNECTION
As a native of Blackburn, I have upheld a longterm interest in the town’s heritage. In addition to our connections with the cotton trade, as a community we are also proud to be home to the birthplace of Alfred Wainwright. I was first introduced to AW through my dad, a keen walker and owner of the Pictorial Guides, and in the 1980s we used them to explore the Lakeland Fells together. Subsequently, Wainwright calendars and diaries, received as Christmas presents, and my passion for the Lake District, moulded me into a fellow ‘Fellwanderer.’ Thereafter, during the early 1990s, I commuted past AW’s erstwhile home on a daily basis, each time taking note of the blue plaque on its frontage dreaming of one day following in his footsteps and relocating to Cumbria.
Fast forward to the year 2000 and Wainwright again featured as a positive influence. On this occasion it was a page in Book Six, The North Western Fells which was brought to my attention. It detailed a ‘Professor of adventure’ who lived in the quarried caves on the eastern flank of Castle Crag in Borrowdale. Initial background research into this character, better known as Millican Dalton, resulted in me fulfilling my dream and establishing a home in Cumbria. There I paid my way by working in the kitchens of Windermere, and in my free time I wrote, then published, my first book: Millican Dalton: A Search for Romance & Freedom; a book that has seen a great deal of success. Thank you for the inspiration, Mr. Wainwright!
That same decade, and with the centenary of Wainwright’s birth approaching, I contemplated what I could do to commemorate the milestone and highlight his celebrated links to Blackburn. Yes, I hear you say, there was already the blue plaque, a legacy with Blackburn Rovers Supporters Club, and his connections with the Town Hall; but at that time there was nothing else to officially acknowledge him as a son of our town—no Wainwright Bridge, Thwaites Wainwright Golden Ale, Wainwright Monument at Pleasington, or Wainwright Way orbital road. This led me to develop the idea of a Wainwright Centenary Trail which would take in relevant sites around Blackburn, and so, in early 2006, I approached Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council. At that point they showed no interest in creating a permanent trail or acclaiming AW’s centenary in 2007, but we agreed to undertake a joint venture—a guided walk around the Borough as part of a local walking festival. The walk went ahead and a group of thirty stalwart Wainwright fans met outside the Town Hall before taking in the other locations associated with AW, culminating with a visit to his birthplace at 331 Audley Range where the resident kindly invited our group inside for a look around.
Taking my plans one step further, I then considered republishing one of the lesser known books illustrated by AW, in this instance Scratch & Co. The Great Cat Expedition; a rare book and one which I thought was more than worthy of a new lease of life. For those of you who are unaware, Scratch & Co. is a unique and intriguing account of the first ascent of the H. K. P., the Highest Known Peak (an undisguised Scafell Pike), written by Molly Lefebure and originally published in 1968 by Gollancz, with illustrations by our very own Lakeland guidebook author and topographer, A. Wainwright. Scratch & Co. is seriously in the tradition of classic mountaineering stories and over the years since its first appearance it has built-up an enthusiastic readership amongst the mountaineering fraternity. As well as being a most exciting adventure story, this is a witty send-up of a mountaineering book—complete with “Alpine Club” type characters, hairbreadth rescues and all the tensions and pompous tones of a Himalayan expedition.
Climbers, dedicated fell walkers, Wainwright fans and Lakeland devotees of all ages and persuasions have followed the high adventures of Scratch and his fellow climbing-cats, his high-altitude terrier sherpas, his twitchy low-level rabbit porters and his free spirited adversaries, the foxes, emerging from their borrans amongst the crags to waylay these expeditionary off-comers. These colourful and keenly observed characters make this book witty and gripping reading; not to mention Manx Scoop and Whiskey Bylines, ace reporters for the Cat Times and Cat’s Courier and Manx Scoop’s fighting mad mongoose ever keen to sink his teeth into anything that vaguely resembled a snake.
With my choice of book established, I contacted Molly directly after searching through the BT phonebook, and I was curtly directed to her agents Watson & Little; at which point I promptly made my apologies for my lack of publishing etiquette. Next, I sent a letter (such a quaint act in these days of social media) to Betty Wainwright. After a couple of weeks, I eventually received a telephone call during a day out in Keswick. It was Betty’s carer. She had phoned on Betty’s behalf before passing the phone over. During this conversation I received permission to use AW’s illustrations.
The contract negations with Watson & Little continued and I eventually signed on the dotted line. From this point forward my dealings with Molly became direct, and much more personal. Molly then invited me to her delightfully located home at “Low High Snab” in the Newlands Valley so we could introduce ourselves and allow me the opportunity to scan the original Wainwright illustrations. We discussed the book’s origin, which Molly told me, believe it or not, she wrote in one day, and mentioned that Wainwright had forfeited his right to royalties; instead insisting his share should be donated to charity. Originally the book title and cover illustration were undecided, two options were on the table: Red Rowan’s Paw of Friendship ending up on the editing room floor.
The choice of illustrator was an easy one. AW was hugely successful and, of course, as we now know, very good friends with Molly, a fellow mountaineering connoisseur—a friendship originally started by post in 1957 after she wrote to him regarding an error in Book Two, The Far Eastern Fells. They shared a lot in common, not only their love of the countryside and the Lake District—but also for cats. When asked to illustrate Scratch & Co. the pair had still not met in person. Instead, Molly had sent AW a manuscript and after reading it through he agreed to provide suitable illustrations. He was all enthusiasm until he met the mongoose, “The cats I can draw with my eyes shut. But a mongoose? I’ve never as much glimpsed one!” he said. Fortunately, a stuffed mongoose was discovered in Kendal Museum, where he worked as Curator. When reporting the good news AW confirmed “I’ve spent a couple of days with the little chap, and I think I’ve got him!”
Holding Wainwright’s original artwork was a red letter day, and a moment I remember well. I read through the letters accompanying the illustrations written in typical Wainwright humour. Within these typed letters were several of his concerns, primarily for “prostituting his talents.” He jested that he may have to walk the streets holding his head in shame for drawing a scruffy little dog having a piddle and confessed “I have sunk very low indeed!” The original copy of the frontispiece showing ‘The Route of the Expedition’ also carried signs of Wainwright’s character. A small patch near Stockley Bridge covered a burn mark which occurred when he experienced “a moment of tense excitement” when his pipe spilled onto the paper.
Paying a visit to Kendal Library, I borrowed a first edition and typed up the manuscript. Progressing onto the book cover, I received a reprimand for incorrectly including the word ‘debutants,’ rather than ‘devotees,’ in the book’s synopsis, a genuine mistake made whilst hurriedly transcribing a telephone conversation. After being educated on the exact dictionary definition of a ‘debutant’ I was then told in no uncertain terms that Molly would write the synopsis herself and forward me a hardcopy. She was no shrinking violet, that’s for sure; though at this point I still had no idea of who she really was.
Keeping with the pedigree of first edition I opted for the book to be typeset at Indent Ltd and printed at Titus Wilson, both of Kendal; this maintained the integrity of the book—wholly written, illustrated, typeset, and printed in Cumbria! The printing and binding ensued, and David Rigg from Titus Wilson dropped off the books, ‘hot off the presses,’ at my home in Blackburn. No title such as this should be without a book launch, and that was the next consideration.
ENGLAND’S HIGHEST BOOK LAUNCH
Have any of you ever attended a book launch? Personally, I never fancied the long queues, overcrowded stuffy rooms, tardy authors, and the whole black-tie affair; until, that is, I decided to republish Scratch & Co. The Great Cat Expedition. A more appropriate launch was in order though, you know, something a little different and more in keeping with my passion for the great outdoors. Cue Scafell Pike.
No doubt considered as the most unlikely location for a book launch, the roof of England was, for this occasion, the perfect choice for this classic, Wainwright illustrated, mountaineering novel. Scafell Pike (3210ft / 978m), as mentioned, adopted in Scratch & Co. as the Highest Known Peak, and the centre piece of the story, has been host to many strange ceremonies over the years. This event added to the mountain’s list of credentials and was a complete contrast to those book lovers used to predictable, bookshop-based launches. This quickly become apparent as the walk from the car to the event was several miles further than usual, but the fact that complimentary red and white wine, and a gourmet cheeseboard were on offer was a good enough reason for anyone to join in.
On the morning of 9 September 2006, after spending the previous night at Edmondson’s farm campsite in Seathwaite, the Mountainmere team set off for the summit venue loaded to the hilt with books, food and beverages—and, not forgetting, the all-important display table.
As expected, the dog days were nonexistent, but a fortunate break in the persistent inclement weather that plagued the end of summer—the first dry, sunny day for weeks—ensured that the launch could be enjoyed by the scores of hikers who arrived on the top of Scafell Pike, and who inadvertently joined in the launch party jovialities. Molly, unable to make the ascent, was represented by friend and fellow author, Richard Gravel.
Rumours of cheese and wine spread over the summit plateau, which were instantly dismissed by some hungry and thirsty walkers as cruel jokes, who were left flabbergasted when they arrived wearily at the summit cairn to be greeted by the equivalent of an oasis in the desert. Their facial expressions and comments were priceless. This was no mirage though and the occasion took its place in the annals of history as England’s highest book.
To set the publicity machine going full speed, I contacted the team at BBC Radio Cumbria and arranged for an interview with Molly. I collected her from home and drove to the studios in Carlisle; a day that she thoroughly enjoyed. Who can blame her? Tell me an author who doesn’t want to stay relevant! 2007 brought with it the annual Lakeland Book of the Year awards. I had entered Scratch & Co. and along with Molly attended the charity luncheon held at the Langdale Chase Hotel on the shores of Windermere. She was a well-known figure among the attendees, and warmly welcomed.
AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP
Initial impressions of Molly made me think that she was rather short tempered or possibly something of a diva, but this could not have been further from the truth. Whilst she may have been a straight talker, she was an open and welcoming person who invited my family and I into the heart of her home. Far from just being her publisher, we became friends—despite the 55-year age gap—and I spent many hours in her company.
We would sit in her kitchen around the Aga or in the lounge where I would listen intently to tales from the wartime years when she worked as private secretary to Professor Keith Simpson, the famous Home Office forensic pathologist. After becoming friendly with Simpson, she chose to ditch her career as a London newspaper reporter to work on some of the biggest cases of the twentieth century. As the first woman in the world to work within a mortuary, she became known as “Miss Molly” or “Molly o’ the Morgue” by Scotland Yard detectives—after all she had assisted with the postmortems of 8000 corpses, many a time eating her lunch, placed unceremoniously next to those unfortunate souls, nonchalantly taking notes whilst Simpson dictated his findings. “If you can eat a ham sandwich in a morgue,” she said, “you can eat anywhere.”
On one visit she recollected chilling details behind the crimes of mass murderers John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murder: and John Christie, the Rillington Place Strangler. I was even shown a black souvenir—Christie’s calling card (Simpson and therefore, by default, Molly had been recruited as part of Christie’s defence team). Serving justice was Albert Pierrepoint, the last hangman in Britain, who could be counted as one of her friends. Although clearly passionate about her work, something she put before romance and a settled home life, these stories, as you can imagine, were not taken lightly!
Moving on from her five-year employment with Simpson, Molly then turned author writing books in various fields. Funded by profits from her first book Evidence for the Crown, relating to her experiences with Simpson, she subsequently moved to the Lake District in 1957. She followed this with Murder with a Difference: The Cases of Haigh and Christie, after which came books on the Lake District (including Cumbrian Discovery, dedicated to Wainwright), two more novels, and writing for radio and television. Additionally, she was also author of acclaimed biographical studies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Hardy. Acknowledging her sterling efforts Molly was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010. Her grand finale was a third Coleridge study, Private Lives of the Ancient Mariner.
In time I learned of her six-year study into drug addiction at Guy’s Hospital and more about her friendship with AW. Maintaining their correspondence by mail for 13 years, often weekly, the two of them had eventually met in person in 1970 when, along with husband John, she paid a visit to Kendal Green. Afterwards they met many times both on the fells, and at “Low High Snab” where Wainwright would sit on the terrace in front of the cottage in his immaculate, bright white shirts. Molly said that the many walkers who passed through her yard whilst busily reading their Pictorial Guides were unaware that the author was sat unnoticed only feet away—something said author took great pleasure in, for he was no lover of crowds.
It transpired that their friendship was something of a love-hate relationship; it was an attachment of highs and lows, of happy times and disagreements. Reading between the lines I was left with the sense that AW had a crush on Molly. On the flip side, whilst she admired his natural ability as a writer and artist, she was equally irked by his stubbornness (he always thought he was right) and a belief that he had become a Lakeland idol (I thought this was rather ironic considering there are many who do in fact consider him to be Lord of the Lakes). She was also critical of his guidebooks being of the opinion that they had facilitated the mass erosion of the high fells; his readers following his trails exactly, step by step, leading to heavy footfall in remote, sensitive areas. I was shown more letters and told more tales, pretty much as described in Wainwright—The Biography by Hunter Davies, and for this reason I will not elaborate further.
A Lake District aficionado, Molly happily relayed other stories ranging from her personal memories of Millican Dalton, an alleged explosive detonation of Broad Stand to make access easier, to her explorations of Goldscope Mine located on the fellside directly opposite her home. I can assure you all, Molly was an impressive raconteur!
Many times, I was invited for lunch, and on one occasion was treated to the most delicious lamb cutlets marinated in Cumberland sauce and served with accompanying roast vegetables, after which she happily signed books for me after remarking, “I would normally have charged £10 per book, that was my usual fee. All for charity!”
As a former member of the Blencathra Hunt, Molly made no apologies for her participation, and the walls of her home were adorned with taxidermy trophies. They were not the only animals encountered on my visits, and one of the more comical episodes I experienced was the time when my dad and I were ‘ordered’ into position by Molly to help round up a couple of Herdwick sheep from her yard at “Low High Snab” along with her husband John; it was akin to a skit from Benny Hill. Though they were well into their late 80s one would have never guessed as they were both very sprightly for their age.
In her twilight years our friendship waned, and I was saddened to hear of her passing in 2013 aged 93, yet forever thankful to have known such a remarkable woman whose tales I never tired of hearing.
Latterly AW inspired me once more, and in 2019, whilst reading Book Five, The Northern Fells, I was led towards the story of the Skiddaw Hermit—a wandering artist and tormented character suffering from mental health issues who lived for a while in a ‘nest’ on Dodd Fell. I took up the pen and once more began writing. My second book, Skiddaw Hermit: The Struggles of George Smith, was published in June 2021. I am currently finalising the second edition of Millican Dalton, due to be published this October.
I will continue reading my Pictorial Guides using them as both an aid and for inspiration and look forward to discovering my next project. To you AW, my fellow Blackburnian, I doff my cap! The past twenty years, for me, have been a wonderful, educational journey.
There is good news for Molly Lefebure. AW fans and collectors will know that in 1968 AW kindly agreed to do the cover and illustrations for a children’s book she had written, Scratch and Co. It’s about an expedition in the Lakeland mountains by a team of cats. AW was amused by the idea and did some excellent drawings. When I was doing my biography of AW in 1995, I tried to get Puffin, part of the same firm that published the biography, to do a new issue of the book, but they turned it down, the rotters!
Now, a publishing company from Blackburn, Mountainmere Research, who specialise in mountain topics, have just reprinted Scratch and Co. Look out for it. All AW fans should have a copy in their collections. “It’s been out of print for years,” says Molly, who still lives in Lakeland, in the Newlands Valley. “I’ve been told that copies of the original book have been changing hands for up to £300. Not that I get a penny. Maddening isn’t it.”
The pompous tones of traditional Himalayan expedition books were brilliantly lampooned in The Ascent of Rumdoodle, which also inspired this engaging mixture of parody and Ripping Yarn. It tells of the tale of a feline expedition to climb the Highest Known Peak in Catland—an undisguised Scafell Pike. Aided by terrier Sherpas and hampered by roguish foxes, the cats inch towards their goal. First published in 1968 and illustrated by Wainwright, it deserves a new generation of fans.
Imaginatively this extravaganza is a triumph. Molly Lefebure manipulates plot and characters with controlled skill. Humorous it is; tense it is; exciting it is; but this saga of The Great Cat Expedition is also a glorious satirical stab at the whole complex of a sport. Mountaineers will recognise the ‘types,’ the slang they use, and the lines they shoot.
A super-ingenious and most diverting book.
The cat’s whiskers.
Times Educational Supplement
A very quirky read.
The Keswick Reminder
The Great Cat Expedition was ready to start. Readers are invited to join the adventure…
A limited number of new copies are available here:
Scratch & Co. The Great Cat Expedition.